Cash bail strips wealth from low-income communities

Colvin Grannum | 2/21/2019, 11:20 a.m.
New Yorkers, including elected officials like Governor Andrew Cuomo and state legislative leaders, are increasingly recognizing that cash bail helps ...
Rikers Island

New Yorkers, including elected officials like Governor Andrew Cuomo and state legislative leaders, are increasingly recognizing that cash bail helps drive mass incarceration. As these officials work to persuade their colleagues to enact deep and necessary changes to our criminal justice system, they should pay attention to an aspect of cash bail that gets too little notice: its devastating economic impact on low-income families and communities, especially those of color.

Take the example of Angela Dixon*. Last year, Ms. Dixon, who is African-American, used her savings and a small business loan to open a hair salon. She hired another African-American woman to work with her. They did not earn a lot, but the business was growing. One evening, Ms. Dixon got into an argument with a neighbor who was blasting music after midnight. She called the police. When the police arrived, they arrested both Ms. Dixon and the neighbor. A judge imposed $3,500 bail because Ms. Dixon had a criminal record as a teenager. With all her savings invested in her business, she could not afford to pay bail. Stuck behind bars on Rikers Island, Ms. Dixon defaulted on her loan and lost her business, and her employee lost her job.

Five months later, the prosecutor dropped the charges and released Ms. Dixon, who was now deeply in debt and jobless.

Race plays a big role in a family’s ability to withstand financial emergencies like this. The median white household in the United States has 15 times the wealth of the median African-American household and 12 times the wealth of the median Latino household. A quarter of all African-American families would have less than $5 if they liquidated all of their assets. In Brooklyn, 29 percent of white households lack enough assets to meet basic needs during a financial crisis, while the comparable figures for African-American and Latino households are 50 and 53 percent respectively.

Given these racial disparities, the impact of cash bail on families of color is particularly harsh.

Ms. Dixon’s story illustrates the general dire financial and emotional consequences. People who cannot pay are detained pre-trial—a traumatic, often violent experience. They frequently lose their jobs and deplete the financial resources of their families. Their reputation is ruined, often permanently. They are more likely to plead guilty, regardless of their actual guilt, and to receive longer sentences than people who were able to post bail.

But even if Ms. Dixon had been able to buy her freedom, she would have lost access to desperately needed resources. Bail payments are held by the courts until the case is resolved, inaccessible for months or even years. In many cases, detained people and their families turn to bail bondsmen, who require cash as collateral and impose sizable fees. According to Comptroller Scott Stringer, each year bondsmen in New York City receive up to $27 million in nonrefundable payments, mostly from people of color who can least afford the burden.

Money paid to courts and bondsmen is no longer available for essential expenses like child care, food, rent or transportation. Families are thrust into the shelter system. Local businesses lose customers.